It’s easy to be poetic about Dead Space. Though the game is a clear hodge podge of influences-Event Horizon, Alien, and Resident Evil 4 at the forefront—the sci-fi horror classic manages a breathless evocation that is hard to pinpoint, but decidedly more than the sum of its parts. Its imposing industry and claustrophobic hallways twist through shifting light, hiding unknownable metal and flesh. In its best moments, playing Dead Space feels like wandering through a massive body, determined to break you down and devour you.
Though much has changed since Dead Space released in 2008, the tools of terror haven’t really. This year’s ground-up remake reimagines or reworks plenty about the original, but constantly postures at devotion. The general thrust of the art direction is largely the same. The remake’s biggest changes are in narrative details. Most of the more technical changes might remain unnoticed if you haven’t played the original recently. The Dead Space remake is not as thorough a reimagining as Final Fantasy VII Remake, but it’s closer to that than one might think.
In some sense, both versions of Dead Space occupy highs and lows. The game’s corny and relentless use of graffiti is still present, for example. Seeing “CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS” written in blood above the game’s first weapon is as clumsy and ill-fitting as it was originally. In contrast, the game’s inobtrusive AI is as enveloping as ever. Forcing a constant gaze at Isaac’s cowering body underscores the skeleton of his armor, reinforcing the ways his body appears like those he fights. It makes checking for health and ammo counts easy and undistracting.
The sound design too is oft-praised, even influential as noted in this retrospective from Lewis Gordan, and its virtues are still present here. Every space sequence in Dead Space is bracing and thrilling. Sound is muffled, but almost absent and it makes enemies harder to track and violence disturbing in its intimate quiet. One of my favorite details is the constant whispering, which sometimes sounds like it’s coming over the announcement speakers, and sometimes seems like it’s a voice from nowhere—a distant prayer broadcast over an unfamiliar signal. These voices are quiet, but still plaintive and desperate. It’s the hush that covers over you in a graveyard, the sense of unfamiliar mourning. Nevertheless, I was driven to uncontrollable laughter when a voice whispered “self-inflicted ocular injury” with the tone of an IMDB parent’s guide.
The necromorphs themselves are perhaps the most dramatic example of these peaks and valleys. Every enemy in Dead Space is effectively a space zombie, a mass of re-arranged parasitic flesh. The game’s baseline of horror is based on a “normal” body twisted beyond recognition. But they are just kinda goofy, aren’t they? The necro-babies in particular, obviously the product of a (sometimes) toothless edginess, are some of the silliest enemies in horror games. Furthermore, the game treats every appearance of every necromorph as the height of terror. It can feel ridiculous when a massive music sting hits for a single enemy that you will dispatch in two shots.
However, Dead Space, both in memory and in this recent reincarnation, is quite good at keeping you on your toes. The constant music stings sometimes feel cheap, but they also act as a fog over what will happen next. When music mounts, Isaac is under threat, but what kind of threat and where it will emerge from is still unknown. Different necromorphs must be dispatched differently, and groups of varied enemies can offer a devilish challenge. While there are some battles that will end with frightful ease, just as many are flailing and desperate. Even on “medium” difficulty my wits and nerves were sometimes tested.
The remake adds some particular terrors to the combat. Blasting weapons like the Force Gun slough off flesh like batter into a pan, leaving a thin skeleton whose claws still stretch to embrace you. The flamethrower chars their bodies, turning them the color of ash, but their eyes still glow in the dark.
The remake’s most notable change is giving a voice to protagonist Isaac Clarke. In the original game, he is eerily silent, always being ordered to endanger himself and never piping up in protest. As Edwin Evans-Thirlwell points out and powerfully expands upon in his excellent review, the remake puts Isaac’s voice ahead of his body. It is easier to pay attention to how someone speaks than how they move, so much of the original’s delicious subtleties come from Isaac’s silence. His desperation was only communicated with movement, especially the game’s rightfully iconic stomp. Even Dead Space 2, which was the first game to give Isaac a voice, benefits from his prior quiet. The previous game becomes a fever dream of memories, an awful nightmare faded in the light of the morning.
The expanded script and increased voiceovers do come with distinct advantages. Isaac’s sometimes companions Zach Hammond and Kendra Daniels both get more to do, and the tension between them ratchets more naturally. Daniels in particular gets nuances not present in the original, though that opinion might be colored by my own interest in hard women with a hard job to do. Some members of the crew also feel meaningfully expanded, without losing too much of the leanness that characterizes the original.
But Isaac’s expansion feels simultaneously enriching and limiting. Here, Isaac is an agent. He suggests madcap plans, gets into trouble, begs for less death but kills with coldness. He’s an action hero, with an everyman, working class energy. In the original, he is merely a worker—isolated from decision-making, but constantly made to bear the brunt of labor, forced in danger by sometimes thoughtless superiors. But even stranger, he always goes along with it. Entire essays, like this excellent one from my friend Kim, have been written about Isaac’s silence. It’s a key part of how the original game works. This change pushes Dead Space towards prestige drama, at the expense of the original’s videogame expressivity.
Still, even the original Dead Space lacks some of horror videogame’s most distinct pleasures. In Silent Hill, for example, there is no luxury of being far away. Scarce ammo and the blunt readiness of a lead pipe make you be brutal and get close. No level of precision will make something die quicker, the messy work of killing will take a long time. In some sense, Silent Hill also offers a fantasy of efficient violence. Speedrunners can cut through the layers of the lakeside town with quickness. But that doesn’t matter so much when the work of death is so unpleasant. Dead Space’s regular demand for precision can feel more like a test of skill than a hellish terror.
I am also completely in love with fixed camera angles. I love the sense of observation, the ability to highlight information or obscure details from the player, and the simple expressivity of having an artist choose where to look. To be fair, Dead Space’s “single shot” does work. It doesn’t draw much attention to itself, in contrast to God of War or Halo Infinite’s bombastic implementation of the technique. There are very few cutscenes in Dead Space, so absent cuts or clumsy framing never hang over the proceedings, especially since you can rarely see Isaac’s face. However, this constant gaze means the game can lack the wondrous haziness of many great horror stories. Dead Space’s comprehensiveness means it shows you everything.
This remake pulls Dead Space closer to the “cinematic” style of big budget games like The Last of Us. Fortunately, it was somewhat already there and is a good example of the form. Perhaps I am simply not yet embittered enough with the basic verbs of videogames, but I found Dead Space’s craft still intoxicating. It’s hard to argue with its frantic fighting that also requires exactness and its meticulous, if overbearing, sense of place. However, all of this remake’s craft, and some of its mistakes, come out of a solid foundation. It’s a pity, then, that it thinks better of some of the original’s most beguiling decisions and devotedly recreates its simple failures.
Dead Space was developed by Motive Studio and published by Electronic Arts. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.